The U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed that police need to obtain a warrant to search the premises around someone’s home, even if they think they have spotted stolen property there. They aren’t allowed to take a quick peek and initiate a search based on what they see.
The case involved a stolen black and orange motorcycle. Its rider had managed to evade police in Virginia on two occasions. They tracked down the person they thought was the rider, so they went to his residence to take a look. As they had expected, a motorcycle was spotted under a tarp on the property. Was it black and orange? An officer entered the premises and moved the tarp to confirm that it was.
When the alleged rider arrived home, he was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property. He was ultimately convicted. On appeal, he challenged the search of the area around his home — which is known as the curtilage — as unconstitutional without a warrant. The prosecution argued that the police did not need a warrant because the search involved a vehicle.
There is indeed an “automobile exception” to the general requirement that police obtain warrants before searching. That exception allows police to search a vehicle if they notice evidence of a crime in plain sight. This exception is allowed essentially because vehicles are easily moved, so the evidence could disappear if police were required to get a warrant before searching.
However, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted, the Supreme Court has always required a warrant when police enter private homes or the curtilage around them in order to perform a search. The majority ruled that the automobile exception does not apply when the vehicle is parked in a driveway or otherwise within the curtilage of the home. The case might have been resolved differently if the motorcycle had been parked on the street.
The rules for when police need warrants before searches are quite complex. In general, warrants are required most often when police propose searching a person’s private home and curtilage. Exceptions to the warrant requirement, however, are allowed in many situations where time is of the essence.